Starting out in recovered Jaipur
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It's returning to somewhere that you know less than a month ago was thrown into such chaos. I suppose when you think about how quickly we used to get started again in britain after an IRA bombing it's not really that unusual, it just makes it more noticeable how quickly people just start to get back into the daily routine. Things happen and life must go on.

Our journeying around the Pink city proper began with one of things that I'd been most excited about before the first time we came, Jantar Mantar. Of course since then we'd seen it's sister monument in Delhi and observed the scale of some of the measuring tools, however this was still a good sight to see.

A lot of the displayed instruments were of a very similar design, including the all important oversized sundial in the middle. Alongside these though were a few we hadn't seen before including a series of dials calibrated specifically for each of the signs of the Zodiac and collection of large horizontally positioned discs that I'm really not sure how they should be used.

Another Plush pad in Jaipur
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Jaipur seems to be where it's at for getting slightly over the top, slightly plush places to stay. This time around, a lot like the Umaid Bhawan hotel that we stayed in when we first got to Jaipur has got a pretty nice interior. It makes me think a lot of the old Raj and I guess that's the intended effect, conveying the luxury and hospitality associated by westerners with those times.



It's a commission stop time baby
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It's not hard to notice a pattern to these things really and I wish they were just a little more open about the nature of the stops and who they are benefiting. Sometimes the stops are really good - other times it's just so blatant but not said.

Anyway, after the palace and a little spot of lunch clouded by a lot of caution and a brief argument over the bill, we had the first of a commission stop double whammy. Opening and representing Jaipurs reputation for Gems and Semi-precious stones was a local jeweler and smith.

One thing did sell this as being a bit more interesting than it could have been though was the inclusion of an astrology reading for each of us. Well actually it turned out to be an astro-palm-face reading, which considering how skeptical I am at the best of times I was not really expecting any real surprises from.

My predictions seemed to involve a lot of emphasis on a need to be more positive, that I should run and should eat more vegetables. It also included the table of information below, (included in my own appalling writing as copied into my journal at the time)

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Well these results, although mildly entertaining in their own ways did not dissuade my ingrained cynicism regarding such things. Just to make it clear why, the colours written for myself, and each of my traveling companions matched the colours we were each wearing.

Our second commission stop was at a small carpet producing place. None of us were overly impressed with the overall products on offer so we moved on pretty quick to check out our new hotel for the night.

Amber palace revisit
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Having made it back out to Jaipur uneventfully we took a moment to revisit the Amber fort. This time I think we got to see it properly, without the underlying tension of last time and within "normal" opening times. There was a lot more of it we really got to see.

Walking up still gave as impressive a view over the valley, fortress walls snaking away into the distance in various directions. This time though we were pleased to not have to dodge the falling debris from the restorative works being undertaken.

Having reached the top of the hill and entered the fort itself we started our exploration with the Temple. As Hindu temples go it wasn't that exciting, although there were a few nicely painted statues sat in the alcoves. The real treasures of the palace cam into play when we entered the Palace proper.

The palace itself was like a massive warren of passageways and rooms, twisting and turning, rising and falling. The whole place was an enormous labyrinth which I guess may have been the point. If you want to keep your ruler safe how better to do it than by ensuring that anybody trying to get to him can't find him? Even better still if your attacker, like me, gets lost in it all.

Nestled in the maze were some little gems to discover though. Little paintings and frescos, aged and awaiting restoration waited in corners and depicted in faded paint elements of the life once lived amongst these walls. Small stone pools, now dry and dusty, denote the where people may have once bathed. Beautiful intricate ceilings and lattices, now battered and broken rounded of the buildings shows of past glory and power.

Having twisted my way through the passageways for seemingly hours, I eventually found myself in the bottom of one of the courtyards with no real idea what direction I should really be heading in to try and get out. So picking a direction and starting off in it I ended up amongst the restoration workers new home, chipping away at some stone flooring. A guard soon appeared to guide me off, pointing me in the right direction which after a little wandering brought me out.

Shifting Plans
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Having traveled i the car a little way it was clear that the journey to Jaipur was going to be too big a hurdle to make. So, cursing the food at the Royale Residency, we made our way back to Delhi. Mark seemed to be ok, displaying his ox like constitution, however the rest of us did not hold so well. Several times both myself and Rhiannon had to make exits from the car to throw up at the side of the road.

That evening, taking time to rest and try and recover in Delhi it was clear something was not right. Anytime when you can be sat in a hotel room in Delhi, with the air conditioning off and a fleece on and still be complaining about the cold you know that there is something seriously wrong. Or at least you do when you look back at it, I really wasn't compus mentus enough to make any worthwhile comment on my own state at that time.

A goods nights sleep can do wonders though and although I wasn't quite bounding out come the morning I still felt a hell off a lot better. Normal service began again and it was all into the car to journey down to Jaipur, hopefully without the bombs this time.

(OMG Mega entry of Doom) TAJ MAHAL!!!! (its India, what the hell did you expect?)
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Monday morning and we were up at the crack of dawn, feeling a little shaky but otherwise not bad for the time of day. And besides that, there was nothing that was going to stop us at that point, we were off to the see the Godfather of Indian tourist sites. Yup, it was Taj Mahal time.

I think that, even if you ignore the nature of the place once you are there, based on the level of hype, fame and general appearance within culture we had to go and see it. There was never any question about it. We were also going to see it at the best time of day, sunrise, or at least that's when we were told was best. Well just after sunrise we arrived, which was close enough, and considering the mist and cloud around it really wasn't actually going to make that much difference. The crowds however were minimal, so at least we had that in our favour.

Entering from the main courtyard from the Western gate, passing through the little security check on the way and then turning to enter the main gardens. The great archway, built of red sandstone, was itself inlaid with white marble sanskrit. Each of the sanskrit stripes is said to widen slightly as they approach the top, just so that observers on the ground can view them without noticing any perspective narrowing.

As we passed through the enormous arch into the main gardens it was a straight look down the empty reflecting pools to the Taj itself, looking quite magnificent standing proud in the centre. Wow doesn't really cover it I don't think and, hype or no hype, it's reputation is justified. At a distance you can appreciate the full spectacle of it, the dominance over the landscape and the sheer contrast of the brilliant white marble to anything else you can see. Everything about it, the full magic and elegance, can be summed up in that first walk through the arch into the gardens.

Along the river the mists provided a softly glowing backdrop, almost giving the Taj a slightly ethereal look in the morning light.

Wandering through the gardens our guide (who overall seemed just a little more keen on getting us the Marble factory than anything else) explained a few interesting facts. One tale of the construction details how Shah Jahan originally wanted the Taj Mahal to be clad in Gold but was refused by the architect, suggesting white Marble instead. Shah Jahan liked the idea and so messengers were sent out all over the world to bring back samples of white marble to determine the best stone available.

Sitting part way down the gardens, maybe about half way from the entrance in, is a raised marble platform surrounding a collecting pool. On top of this and on each side of the pool are stone benches, including the semi-famous Diana Bench. Resisting the urge to wretch at the naming of the bench after such an inconsequential happening (OMG! a bench she really sat on...Bleeeeeaaaarghhhhh!!!!!), we took our turns to sit there and get our tourist shot sat in front of the Taj.

Like other Mughal tombs the Taj also has a large raised area around it. Unlike others though where you need to remove your footwear before climbing onto the structure, thin paper overshoes are provided to prevent damage to the stone. I suspect part of this is an effort to keep the tourists happy and to justify the 750Rs entrance fee, although elsewhere I always thought that there was an element of respect in the removal of shoes. A removed shoe leaves the outside world outside, where as the covered shoe brings the outside dirt in in a little paper bag.

Although the full grandeur of the Taj may only be appreciable from a distance, but up close the scale of the project becomes something else and the sheer detail and quality of the inlay is fully apparent. Flowers, Sanskrit test and geometric patterns are all inlaid in different fashions and in different stones.

At the back of the Taj Mahal there are superb views out over the river valley, the mist and the morning light making it a mystical landscape that could be lifted from almost any era in history. Directly across from us, mirroring the gardens of the taj, lies the foundations of Shah Jahan's great unfinished work rumoured to have originally been going to be his own tomb. There is commonly held belief that he intended for the opposite building to be done in black, to contrast with the Taj. I'm not sure whether or not I believe that although I do agree with Monty Don's views here. He goes with the theory that the opposite bank was intended to mirror everything on Taj Mahal's side, continuing the repeating symmetry so common both here and at other Mughal tombs.

Infact that symetry even shows with the buildings flanking the Taj. To the west is the ever important mosque, built so allow any visitors a location where they can stop to pray at the correct times of day. Opposite, on the eastern side of the Taj lies the guesthouse, an exact mirror replica of the mosque. Can't say I believe many guests actually would have stayed there, it structure not being one that is obviously built for comfort, however it certainly does add to the geometrical niceness.

Inside the Taj itself you come to Mumtaz Mahal's tomb. The lighting here is poor, but even in the dim light filtering in you can still see how intricate the inlay becomes, with tiny flowers like a pattern stolen off a grandparents duvet cover lining all the sides. Little men with really insubstantial battery torches stood around ready to dart in, like the unwanted guides of elsewhere, pleasing the westerners and hoping for money.

As we drove away I impressed. It may be old, it may be hyped to hell, but the Taj is impressive in almost every sense of te word. It's just a shame that by now three of the four of us were suffering with food poisoning or something similar (the famous Delhi Belly).

More detailed than your average commision stop
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On the way back to our hotel for the evening we had a brief diversion for a good old fashioned commission stop. This stop was interesting, although most of the goods on display were of a price range that we could really only dream about. How many Indian craft places have photos of world leaders receiving their goods on the wall?

The Onyx emporium was, well I guess marble design workshop is the best description I can give it. They specialised in the inlaying of marble details into items such as tables and wall panels, making beautiful displays of coloured flowers and symbols. the visit also served to provide us with a good idea of the level of work required to produce work of this style, with men working on individual inlay tiles being shaped by hand against small foot driven grindstones, before being pasted into cut grooves in the Marble.

Agra and the fort
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Agra itself is, I'm sorry to say a bit of a dump. It may have some of the most famous sites in India, but the town itself is for the most part a bit of a dive. I was not impressed really, although perhaps that should just be taken as a comment on the parts of it that we passed through.

After a brief stop in our Hotel (a place we would later look back on in a very poor light) we were off out again to have a look at Agra fort. Again with the Mughals as they did just about every big structure around this part of the world, Agra fort is a little like Delhi's in its architectural style. It's layout however is quite different and the diversity of types of pavilion and balconies offering views over the river plane below is quite impressive.

As we wandered through the half of the fort open to visitors I wondered about the level of design that went into these things. How much was done spur of the moment, building additions that took the fancy of the constructors and how much was done as a complex plan. I have to admit I'm swayed towards the latter of these two options, especially considering the water features and troughs where rain water will run through channels to carefully placed collecting pools scattered around.

Moving through the different areas you can see a change though. They start bland, barely decorated at all and all just showing their Red sand stone. Then, progressing through the different ages of the construction, you find that the constructed fields become more and more intricately decorated. White marble and gold roofs mark the pinnacle of these detailings. I guess these answer my previous question in themselves, each section had its own careful designer who worked independently of all others sections.

According to the history books, Shah Jahan was imprisoned here by his son towards the end of his life, marking the change in rulers. A bit of a gilded prison in some senses, although I don't think I'd like to be locked up in a building that overlooked my wife's tomb, especially after spending as long as Shah Jahan did constructing it.

Legend also has it that when Emperor Jehangir was in power he had a chain of bells strung up between the walls of the fort and the riverbanks below. Any peasants disgruntled with the behaviour of an official were supposedly able to ring the chain and the Emperor would here their case. Can't say that I believe it was as simple as that and I wouldn't be surprised if there were swift deaths for those deemed to be wasting the Emperors time, however it does make a good story.

One little event of amusement from our evening wanderings. As usual we were accosted for lots of photos by Indian tourists loving the fact that we were white people (and I suspect especially liking Emily and Rhiannon). After being accosted by one particularly large group of students (who were definitely more interested in having the Emily and Rhiannon in their photos) we just had to scarper. People were appearing out the woodwork from all over to get photos of us.

Sikandra - a slightly different big tomb
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Further down the road, closer to Agra but not quite there, we got to Sikandra, site of the enormous Akbar's Tomb. Akbar's Tomb is another of the enormous Mughal Tomb's of India, bigger than Humayan's and withe gardens stretching for some distance all around. It seems that the Mughal's had a bit of a thing for building their enormous tombs and monumental mausoleums.

Certain aspects of the Tomb are following on from the distinctive pattern we've seen before. They have the same geometric garden layout, with the perpendicular paths froming a cross pattern through the grounds. There's also the same arched entrance ways at three of the four sides where the paths meet the edges, with one of these housing the tombs mosque.

There are also some distinct differences too though. The walkway to the tomb is already raised above the surrounding gardens, and so there's no need to ascend the steps to the outer walkway as you reach the tomb. Another thing is that the upper levels of the tomb are devoid of the same domed roof that you see elsewhere, instead being decorated with a complex array of archways and smaller rooves, almost like a small palace perched on top.

Many of these differences and similarities along side each other probably come from the complex design process that developed this magnificent structure. Akbar himself started the constructions and was intent on working a wide variety of different architectural styles into the design, thus producing the radically different structure of the central tomb. However Akbar died before he was able to complete the construction, and so his son took over the project. Being more keen on finishing the project than expending too much more on it he stuck to a much more traditional design in order to finish sooner.

Inside, entering through a gap in the stone lattice on one side we walked down the steeply sloping floor to the actual level of the tomb. Along the walls of the passageway were detailed paintings of flowers on a rich gold background.

Lead them to the road and we shall reach...Vegas?
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Early start and off on the start of our trip down to Agra. Blissfully unaware of what was to come and the changes we would need to make to our plans.

For now though we were with our new driver, Mr Singh, although with such a unique Indian name I'm not entirely sure we could ever have found him again (half the Sikh population seems to be called Singh). Not too bad a guy although a bit of a geezer, I wouldn't have been at all surprised if he had some additional role as a cockney style trader/fixer. I'm sure he could have talked far more t mark than he did, however mark falling asleep put a bit of a damper on that happening.

Journey started with getting out of Delhi. This sounds like it shouldn't take very long, but in actual fact this is actually a long process, the sprawl of Delhi stretching for a long way along the road taking its not insubstantial amounts of traffic with it.

Somewhere along the road, several hours in, we came to our first stop at a Hindu temple suggested by Singh. This didn't look like any other Hindu temple I've seen though, with the entire place being coated in gleaming white marble that blazed in the intense sunlight. It literally hurt to look at the building and its surrounding rounds, so with trepidation I walked on in with half shut eyes.

Inside was really quite barren. The walls were completely undecorated, devoid of carving or painting, and no statues filled the space either. Instead at one end there was just one portrait painting with some people milling around it.

As we turned to leave, thinking we'd seen it all a young Temple student appeared guiding us to the side, pointing us to the website and explaining that this temple was dedicated to the teachings of Baba Jai Gurudev. He explained that although the temple was empty now, once a year it becomes a bright and colourful place filled with people as they hold a festival.

Then we were led around the side and down underneath the temple into what I guess is its secret heart. There, underneath the temple, was what can only be described as a grotto where the calm simplicity of the upper floor is forgotten. It was like a little religious Vegas side show of light up panels and rope lights dedicated to the Guru. A slot machine really wouldn't have looked out of place in the corner.

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